I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the results of the presidential election in the United States. The whole world, it seems, is reeling from the aftershock of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The question that I have been wrestling with since then is, what is the Buddhist response to all of this? To not become intoxicated by the madness? To avoid harmful speech? To express compassion to everyone without distinction?
But something else has been rattling in my mind as I watch the world seethe, foam, and spiral in disorientation: the opening narrative of the Mahaparinibbanasutta, as unlikely as that may seem.
The Mahaparinibbanasutta is famous for many reasons, not least of which is that it records the Buddha’s passing into parinirvana. It provides fascinating details about how his corpse was handled and paints beautiful scenes in which his devotees wrestled with his mortality. But before all of this takes place, the text opens with something altogether different: King Ajatasattu sending his chief minister to Vulture Peak to seek the Buddha’s counsel about annihilating the Vajjians.
The scene is fascinating if for no other reason than it demonstrates that kings would approach the Buddha with such political topics without any apparent embarrassment. It is the Buddha’s response to this alarming question, however, that I find helpful at this time.
The Buddha’s response is to ask questions: do the Vajjians meet regularly and are these meetings well attended? The answer he receives is yes. Do the Vajjians come together and disperse peacefully? And do they attend to their issues harmoniously? Once again, the answer is yes. The Buddha then asks if the Vajjians follow their own ancient customs, respect their elders, and listen to them. Again yes. The Buddha asks if the Vajjians refrain from abducting women, respect their shrines, give offerings, and guard their arahants. To all of these questions, the answer is yes.
It is only after hearing all of this that the Buddha is prepared to give his teaching. According to the Buddha, when a community does all of these things—when they come together and disperse harmoniously, when they tend to their problems peacefully, when they treat their traditions, their elders, and their women with respect—no harm can come to them; the Vajjians will not fall if they are attacked.
There are many gems in this scene, but I will restrict myself to discussing two, the first having to do with method. The Buddha is asked whether an attack against a neighboring kingdom would be successful. The Buddha could have chosen the easy route and side-stepped the issue with an argument about non-harm or something to that effect, but he doesn’t. The question was not, after all, theoretical. He was not asked whether attacking the Vajjians was just. He was asked if it would work. The Buddha therefore takes the question as it is and answers it on the king’s terms. And he answers it by asking questions.
In other words, first he does his homework.
This is not a revolutionary tactic by any stretch of the imagination. Doing our homework before we convince ourselves one way or another is a pretty sensible rule of thumb, but the higher the stakes, the easier it can be to forget.
The recent election has been particularly challenging and the issues at stake are pivotal in so many ways—not only for Americans, but for many of us on the sidelines as well. Most of us are deeply committed to our views on the issue, but given how quickly everything is moving, we must remember to step back and regularly check our facts before moving forward. The realities on the ground do not always match our expectations and we should have the humility to recognize that. We need to keep asking questions, challenging ourselves with different possibilities than the ones we have married ourselves to in our heads, diligently doing the work over and over again. This, to me, is the very essence of civic responsibility.
The other point that I find myself inspired by in this sutra has to do with the content. There is wisdom in the Buddha’s answer that I feel is particularly pertinent to the political moment we find ourselves facing. The Buddha’s questions are not what one might have expected. He does not ask how powerful the Vajjians are, how large their army is, or enquire about the quantity of provisions they have stockpiled. The Buddha instead asks how harmonious the Vajjians are with each other.
According to this passage, the Vajjians will not be defeated by an attack—not because they have more manpower, but because they work well together and are respectful of each other. It is this point, more than any other, that has reverberated in my mind throughout this election: that we are at our best when we respect each other, and that we fall into a spiral of pain when we don’t.
The violent rhetoric emerging from this election—and the fear that this same rhetoric will soon turn into action—must have at least some of its roots embedded in a history that has not been always been respectful of difference. Indeed, it seems sadly appropriate that it is precisely at this moment, when all of our hatreds are being yelled through loudspeakers, that the Standing Rock crisis arises. The North American relationship with the land and its indigenous peoples has not been particularly respectful, to say the least.
If this sutra has anything to teach us, it is that we must work together to create harmony, to respect our elders, traditions, women, and each other. That we must listen to each other carefully, ask questions, and then ask them again. No matter how divisive we may sound, it is our collective obligation that we keep working in that direction.
Because if we don’t, we will splinter apart like a piece of dried out wood.
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